By Sarah Percy for Why The Cold War Still Matters
Edited, Compiled & Copied by GW Rehder 09/02/2020
The concrete wall that divided Berlin for almost 30 years was more than a wall.
It was a physical manifestation of the Iron Curtain, the imaginary line dividing Europe between Soviet influence and Western influence.
It was the most enduring symbol of the Cold War.
Amid brutal Soviet repression and a superpower conflict so tense it seemed nuclear war was imminent, it seemed impossible that anything could change.
But it did.
In 1989 the wall came down, the Cold War ended, and world politics was altered forever.
And the way that dramatic change came about still matters today.
The Cold War’s end has a lot to teach us about how we can end hostile conflict in a peaceful way — and why luck sometimes matters more than you might think.
There are three lessons we can draw:
- Personality matters in world politics;
- Popular protest for democratic change is the triumph of hope over historical evidence;
- ‘Stable’ world politics are often anything but, and the speed of change can be stunning.
Personality, connection and a bit of luck
Personality, and personal relationships, played a crucial role in the end of the Cold War.
In 1983, then-US president Ronald Reagan declared that the Soviet Union was an evil empire.
Any kind of relationship between Washington and Moscow looked unlikely.
But in 1985, the Soviets chose Mikhail Gorbachev as their new leader.
Gorbachev was completely different from his predecessors. He was willing to be critical of the Soviet economy, and was fully aware of its flaws.
He instituted two major reforms to improve the economy: perestroika and glasnost.
Perestroika was a policy of economic restructuring, the reforms that would be necessary to transform the Soviet economy.
But for economic reform to work, it was necessary for people to criticise it; it had to be clear what was wrong in order to fix it.
This was the policy of glasnost, or openness.
The problem with allowing some criticism is that it becomes impossible to control.
Once people were allowed to speak out in some areas, they inevitably began to do so in others, challenging the state’s control over political issues as well as economic ones.
Gorbachev’s economic approach within the Soviet Union earned him the confidence of the West.
“I like Mr Gorbachev. We can do business together,” British prime minister Margaret Thatcher once said.
“We both believe in our own political systems. He firmly believes in his; I firmly believe in mine.
“We are never going to change one another … but we have two great interests in common: that we should both do everything we can to see that war never starts again, and therefore we go into the disarmament talks determined to make them succeed.”
Gorbachev and Reagan got along famously. They made real progress in reducing superpower tensions.
But if Gorbachev hadn’t become the Soviet leader, it is hard to see how any of this change would have occurred.
In some ways, Gorbachev’s rise to power, his internal political changes, and his relationship with Reagan remind us that there is a lot of luck in world politics.
Different personalities would have led to a different result.
Reagan and Gorbachev’s relationship also reinforces the fact that overcoming differences requires a personal connection.
Power of the people
Peaceful popular protest played a crucial role in bringing down the Berlin Wall and ending the Cold War.
In November 1989 — almost exactly 30 years ago — 500,000 people marched in East Berlin to protest against the government.
They followed in the footsteps of tens of thousands of people who had marched throughout September and October.
Protest in East Germany, as it was everywhere inside the Iron Curtain, was an act of extraordinary bravery.
Secret police kept a tight lid on criticism.
Dissidents were arrested, jailed and tortured, but they still continued to protest.
On nearly every other occasion demonstrators took to the streets, Soviet tanks rolled in, and brute force shut down the possibility for change.
The fact that these protests were allowed to continue, and eventually worked, again relied on luck.
In fact, the Berlin Wall only opened because of a mistake.
The East German regime, under increased pressure from protest, decided to make some changes to freedom of movement.
The official tasked with announcing these changes at a press conference didn’t follow his brief: he announced that border changes would take effect immediately.
When asked if these changes would apply to the Berlin Wall, he mistakenly said yes.
People rushed to the wall, in such large numbers that the authorities could not respond quickly enough, and soon were pouring over it to freedom.
Many authoritarian regimes have drawn the obvious lesson from the protests in Berlin: peaceful protest must be crushed to prevent regimes from collapsing.
The same year the Berlin Wall fell, democratic protesters also gathered elsewhere in the world.
In Tiananmen Square, protestors were crushed by tanks, and the Chinese regime persisted.
In Berlin, they were allowed to protest, and East Germany disappeared.
Finally, the Cold War shows us that international political situations can appear stable, or even permanent, when in fact they are anything but.
The superpower relationship of the early 1980s was so tense it looked like it could not possibly change.
The East German leader, Erich Honecker, announced confidently in January 1989 that the Wall would still be standing in 50, or even 100 years.
The world looked like it would never change.
Anna Funder, author of Stasiland and a long-time observer of East German politics, points out that if people raised the idea that the Berlin Wall might fall, even in early 1989, they’d have been laughed at.
“When this kind of thing was mentioned … they would be laughed at … as if they were talking about a fantasy, or leprechauns, or something so incredibly unlikely to happen that really it wasn’t worth discussing,” she says.
But in the space of less than a year, it totally transformed.
The speed of change can be rapid.
In retrospect, there were important shifts that presaged the Cold War’s end that contemporaries often failed to notice.
The Soviet economy was in a dire state.
Even the CIA’s estimates of its strength were incorrect: the Americans assumed that it was in decline, but they had no idea how much in decline.
Nick Bisley, head of the school of Humanities and Social Sciences at La Trobe University, points out that the Soviet economy was “bizarre”.
“The Soviet Union has the largest stockpile of intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, it’s got the leading edge at the time … of supersonic jet fighters,” he says.
“But they can’t make durable shoes, and they can’t put food on the shelves of their supermarkets with any degree of regularity.”
In fact, the Soviet economy was propped up by the sale of vodka, to such a degree that when Gorbachev tried to restrict alcohol sales to improve productivity in the workforce, it reduced Soviet revenue dramatically.
The policy “starved the government of funds at the time they critically needed it,” according to Kristy Ironside, an assistant professor of history at McGill University.
The failing Soviet economy caused Gorbachev to institute domestic reforms, and eventually to allow the Eastern bloc to sort out its own affairs rather than continuing to prop it up.
What seems permanent in international politics can be surprisingly impermanent.
Sarah Percy is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Queensland. Listen to her four-part podcast, Why The Cold War Still Matters, on RN Presents.
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